After a stiff start, Cardi B’s live return is a riot of personality, power, and passion

The New York rapper returned to the stage at Global Citizen Festival

It’s been just under a year since Cardi B last performed in her hometown of New York, which seems odd given just how in demand she’s become in these intervening months. A lot of things have changed since her last show here – she’s released a multi-platinum album in ‘Invasion Of Privacy‘, given birth to her first child, Kulture, and become the hottest rapper in the world. New York’s soundtrack, meanwhile, has changed just slightly. Last summer, all you heard blaring from stereos perched on fire escapes or out the windows of passing cars was ‘Bodak Yellow’. This summer, it was ‘I Like It’.

After making a surprise appearance with Migos at one of their Madison Square Garden shows with Drake last month, Cardi’s now ready to get back to business with her own set. She makes her full live return tonight (September 29) at Global Citizen Festival in Central Park where, in the 30 minutes since Shawn Mendes left the stage, everything has been decked in red – red DJ booth, red stairs, a drum kit with a red skin. As ‘Drip’ kicks in, she emerges with a troupe of dancers, all of whom are dressed in red too.

For the first two songs, she looks like a timider version of the usually larger-than-life Cardi. Oddly. it takes a technical difficulty for her to find her feet. “All the bad bitches and an ugly one or two,” she jokes at the crowd after a burst of her G-Eazy collab ‘No Limit’. “I made this song for you.” She stands waiting for ‘She Bad’ to start but instead there’s silence. “Oh snap, wait a minute!” she says, filing time by revealing how she’s feeling. “I’m nervous. I’m sweaty. I had a nervous breakdown but it’s alright though cos I’m here trying to save the world.”

That’s not rap braggadocio, by the way. Global Citizen as an organisation is one that encourages people to do better for their local communities and the wider world. Fans get free tickets by doing good deeds and performances are punctuated by speeches from politicians, actors, and activists about campaigns and world issues. For Cardi’s part, she urges the crowd to research countries and organisations that need our help because “Americans are spoilt”.

Some of the other performers’ calls to actions through the day feel more scripted, whereas Cardi speaks freely and with passion. Those feelings run through into the rest of her set, which, once she gets comfortable, is a riot of personality and power that’s as likely to have the huge crowd laughing as dancing. “That was a lot of energy,” she exclaims after ‘Motorsport’. “We need to tone it down for my health cos I can’t breathe and I got asthma, and this is asthma season.”

After ‘Ring’, she addresses the crowd again to share her frustrations at being ghosted. “Don’t you just hate it when a man don’t call you back?” she asks. “I’m like, ‘Why isn’t he calling me? I know I got the goods.'”

She’s fully in her stride by the time ‘I Like It’ makes the park feel more like a Dominican dance party than a music festival. From there, she drops her verse from Bruno Mars‘ ‘Finesse’, and a fiery ‘Bartier Cardi’. “Ever since Cardi got rich they upset,” she says afterwards. “Everybody wanna sue me!”

There’s time for one more in her triumphant return and she’s obviously saved the song that made her – her “firstborn” – til last. ‘Bodak Yellow’ is a reminder of how far the rapper has come in the last 12 months – from knocking Taylor Swift off the top spot to cementing her place as a legitimate star. Tonight, it feels brasher and bolder, Cardi’s on stage attitude searing into it and making it feel just as exciting as the first time you heard it.

Before she leaves the stage, she has one more thing to say. “I was gonna read off the teleprompter,” she begins. She’s been asked to say something scripted about registering to vote but, instead, she decides to give her own views. “We need to vote,” she says. “Especially us – the millennials.”

She has a warning for the crowd too. “Last election, everybody took it as a joke,” she explains. “Even me, I’m not even gonna front, because I thought, ‘Man, that person ain’t gonna win’ and look where we are now. We need to vote so we change our community. We need somebody that’s gonna represent us, that’s gonna protect us. We don’t need somebody that’s gonna be arguing with ballplayers.” Her impassioned speech comes to a halt as she decides to let “this woman tell it better” and the screens cut to a pre-recorded message from Michelle Obama.

After it’s done, there’s a brief return to the Cardi B show. “Woo, Mrs Obama!” she exclaims, before telling the good to “go vote”. “I’m voting!” she says. “What’s good. Bye everyone!” And, like that, Cardi’s first show back is over and it’s exactly how you’d expect – a victorious return that feels giddy and glorious, and, yep, important.

Cardi B played:

‘Money Bag’
‘No Limit’
‘She Bad’
‘Be Careful’
‘I Like It’
Bartier Cardi’
‘Bodak Yellow’